Saturday, August 14, 2010

`Speaking Truth About the Human Word'

Behind my in-laws’ house in Fredericksburg, Va., runs a power line, a perch for red-tailed hawks, hanging from tall wooden poles. The utility company used to keep the ground beneath the wires free of trees and most of the underbrush. As recently as four years ago my wife and I walked the cut-back trail and watched white-tailed deer feeding by swimming pools in the backyards of suburban houses. Now the path is choked with blackberry thickets, goldenrod, sumac, poison ivy and saplings of red oak, tulip, wild cherry, poplar and laurel. Walking is curtailed but voluptuous greenery, laurel in particular, is beautiful. Chaucer was right: “…a fresh grene laurer tree… / That gave so passing a delicious smelle…”

Even before I think of Chaucer, or Apollo and Daphne, the sight of laurel brings to mind three words, the final line of a poem by Yvor Winters, a sort of poetic counterpoint to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” -- “On Teaching the Young”:

“The young are quick of speech.
Grown middle-aged, I teach
Corrosion and distrust,
Exacting what I must.

“A poem is what stands
When imperceptive hands,
Feeling, have gone astray.
It is what one should say.

“Few minds will come to this.
The poet’s only bliss
Is in cold certitude—
Laurel, archaic, rude.”

We can only imagine what Winters would make of an age that takes John Ashbery and Sharon Olds seriously and even judges them poets. Laurel implies triumph or distinction – notions denigrated as “elitist,” as though the best poems were anything but a triumph of distinction over mediocrity. Helen Pinkerton echoes the themes of “On Teaching the Young” in “Autumn Drought” (Taken in Faith: Poems), a poem she dedicates to Winters, her former teacher who died in 1968. The dedication reads “In memory of Yvor Winters—Stanford University 1976”:

“November brings no rain. Brown stubble blackens.
Torn paper litter, wind-blown with the leaves,
Piles up against dead stems. As traffic slackens,
Nightfall brings fear, and always now one grieves.

“Where I once listened, lonely as these young,
But with some hope beyond what I could see
That meaning might be mastered by my tongue,
Anonymous process now claims them and me.

“Perhaps the enterprise of mind is vain;
Where hucksters sell opinions, knowledge fails,
Wit pandering to the market, for gross gain,
Corrupted words, false morals, falser tales.

“Though one I loved taught here, provoking strife,
By speaking truth about the human word,
And died—as few men do—ready for life,
I, teaching in his absence, seem absurd,

“Seem almost unremembering, unawake.
And should his poems live—some consolation
To those who knew him and to those who take
His measure by their worth—their celebration

“Will not be here, not where the idle gaze,
Touristic, slides past phoenix psalms to stare
Where Mount Diablo dominates through haze
The ever-diminishing waters and the glare.”

The notion that “meaning might be mastered by my tongue” will seem quaint to some readers and writers. Pinkerton’s poem recalls one written by another former Winters student, Edgar Bowers’ “For Louis Pasteur,” in which he asks: “How shall a generation know its story / If it will know no other?” Pinkerton honors the triumph and distinction of Winters, “speaking truth about the human word,” and posthumously crowns him poet laureate, at least for some of us.


William A. Sigler said...

Interesting you unearth such beautiful poems while sojourning in Fredericksburg. All three speak – ever so obliquely – of battles fought, presumably lost: for the power of words to harness truth in the face of the futilities of erosion and indifference, for the power to go on using words in the face of the impossibility of mastering meaning. Winters, specifically, told of the fight for poetic expression, for words that go beyond words; Pinkerton the fight to use words instead of laurels to capture the life of the departed; Bowers the fight for one’s own integrity where we all use the same words. The words you unearth here, glorious tombstones, are only “what stands” when everything else, the fond, has fallen away.

It makes me wonder what Winters thought – as some sort of irascible older brother – of the generation of American poets born starting about 100 years ago, the first to populate the academies, the ones who, while their generation was surviving the depression, saving the world, and rebuilding it, were as poets learning how to surrender. The amount of serious mental illness among that group is truly staggering: Roethke, Olsen, Bishop, Berryman, Schwartz, Rukeyser, Jarrell, Lowell, Patchen, Laughlin (plus honorary daughter Sylvia Plath) - the common thread a lost father they tried to reclaim through words. Winters could not be a father to those, but he did create a nest for the younger ones, gave them honesty with love, something only fathers can do.

Anonymous said...

Not "phoenix psalms" in the last stanza, but "phoenix palms"...It is a variety of palm common on the Stanford campus. Palm Drive itself (the main road into and out of the Quad) more or less points toward Mt. Diablo as you look east down two long lines of palms.